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Full text of "Texas Monthly, May 1982 - Tom Philpott - The Case of the Campus Crusader"

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Of the 


by Victoria Loe 

Tom Philpott was just your 

average radical professor. 

Until he got shot. 

1^ om Philpott's apartment looks like the apartment of any 
" sixties-spawned leftist graduate student: the living 
room has wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, El Sal- 
vador and Bobby Kennedy posters, a frayed and fading 
. flora!, print sofa, two large stacks of records leaning 
against one wall (Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana outward most), 
a filing cabinet doubling as an end table. The dining room holds a 
metal and fake-wood-veneer dinette set. The bedroom is stark, 
dominated by a venerable four-poster on one wall. But (bete, just 
above the headboard at about waist height, is the one anomalous 
touch: a neat round bole in the white plasterboard. On the adjacent 
wall, slightly higher, is another hole, made, like the first, by a 
.38-caliber bullet. 

At first glance, Philpott himself might pass for a graduate student, 
rather than the associate professor of history that he is. Up close, 
though, he looks every bit of his forty years. A liberal sprinkling 
of gray peppers his sandy hair, a gentle paunch mars the compact- 
ness of his five-nine frame, and a wariness tightens the skin around 
his wide, ingenuous eyes. But perhaps the most striking thing about 
him is a gesture: from time to time, unconsciously, it seems., 
Philpott kneads fretfully on his upper left arm and rotates it gingerly 

For years Tom Philpott was known as UT's resident radical fire- 
brand. Now he's known as the prof who got— or had himself— shot 


Illustrated by Melissa Grimes 

Slides and alt, Philpott's emotional lectures on America ore the greatest show on campus, 

to flex his shoulder. Across the back of that 
shoulder runs a livid three- or four-inch 
scar, made by the same slug that now rests 
in the wall above his bed. The wound and 
the bullet hole dale from last October 27, 
when, Philpott says T two intruders broke 
into the Austin apartment and shot him with 
the Sterling Arms .38-caJiber automatic 
pistol they took from a shelf beside the bed, 

Popular young college professors, even 
notoriously outspoken ones like Tom Phil- 
pott, aren't expected to get shot; the attack 
created a storm on the University of Texas 
campus. Philpott told the campus news- 
paper, the Daily Texan, that the shooting had 
come as no surprise to him. In fact, he bad 
been expecting something of the sort for 
some time. He said he had made mortal 
enemies by investigating pederasty and 
organized child prostitution, and he inter- 
preted the attack as an attempt to discredit 
his work by Creating the impression thai he 
had committed suicide. However, die Austin 
police let it be known that they found his 
story farfetched. Within days* the case of 
State Representative Mike Martin -accused 
of having had himself shot as a publicity 
gimmick— was being invoked as a parallel. 
The police stopped investigating altogether 
when Philpott, like Martin , refused to lake a 
polygraph test. He said the results would not 
be valid because he is a diagnosed manic- 
depressive, and manic-depressives do not 
test reliably, but that didn't mollify the 

If the shooting made Philpott a genuine 
celebrity, his face and name were hardly 
unknown, at UT or in Austin before October 
27. As one of the most vocal left-leaning 
scholars at one of the nations leading 
universities. Philpott has been visible in 
almost every city- and campus- wide con- 
troversy of the past thirteen years, from in- 
tegration of the public schools to curbs on 
Austin's growth,, from city, state, and na- 
tional politics to the selection of university 
presidents and regents, and from the tenur- 

ing of controversial professors to U.S. 
foreign policy in Viet Nam. Iran, and El 
Salvador. His intense, highly opinionated 
lectures on the inequities of American socie 
ty have drawn huge classes, a devoted band 
of followers, and more than a little criticism 
from faculty and students. (In March Phil- 
pott was named among both the twenty 
best and the twenty' worst professors in a stu- 
dent poll conducted by the UT campu.s 

Every university has its Tom Philpott; 
there's always at least one professor who 
turns up at the center of every controversy, 
who seems lo make his living as the ad- 
ministration's quasi-official gadfly and whip- 
ping boy. Each attracts his own litde band.s 
of followers and critics. Philpott is of a type: 
the radical professor. He is something quite 
different from the professor who happens to 
privately hold radical political views, He is 
radical first, professor second. Tom Phil 
pott's fondest dream is to be remembered 
among the great American social crusaders. 
to join a pantheon thai includes Jane Ad- 
dams, Clarence Darrow. Jacob Riis, Fred- 
erick Douglass, Robert Kennedy, and Mar- 
tin Luther King, Many people at UT scoff ai 
the very idea; that, too, is the usual lot of the 
radical professor. In only one way does 
Philpott depart from the common folkways 
of radical professordom. He got shot. 

Mhilpotts apartment houses curi- 
osities other than bullet holes 
)nc sits in a frame on the book- 
a yellowing certificate of rea- 
lization issued by the U.S. gov- 
ernment in 1913 to one Thomas Francis Lcc. 
then aged 25 and listed as a subject of Great 
Britain. In point of fact, Lcc, the maternal 
grandfather and namesake of Thomas Lee 
Philpott, was an Irishman. At fifteen, he had 
run away from an overbearing stepfather to 
follow his older brother and sister to Chi- 
cago. Thomas Lee's people were of the mer- 
chant class, but Tom Phil pott's maternal 

Philptttfx office if a shrine n> rebels and martyrs. 


"Every university 
has its Tom Philpott; 
there 9 8 always at 
least one professor 
who turns up at the 
center of every con* 
troversy 9 who seems 
to make his living as 
the administration 's 
quasi-official gadfly 
and whipping hoy* " 

grandmother and his, father were descended 
From shanty Irish, peasants who had fled the 
Potato Famine of the 1840s. Phil potts 
father, an accounting clerk, died in 1943, 
just one year after Tom, the second of his 
i w« sons, was born. His widow got a job as 
executive secretary to [he president of the 
Rock Island Railroad and moved herself and 
her two boys into her parents 1 modest apart- 
ment on Chicago's South Side, next to the Il- 
linois Central tracks. Tom slept on a day bed 
in the dining room. 

Tom was essentially raised by his grand- 
parents in that respectable lowcr-middlc- 
ctass neighborhood, near both the opulent 
Gold Coast along Lake Michigan and the 
tenements of Steeltown. As a smaller-than- 
average child he learned to take his knocks. 
He was, he says, always getting into fights 
-and always losing. Tom recalls his grand- 
father fondly as a complex, inarticulate man 
whose conscience was frequently at war 
with his emotions. Thomas Lee disliked 
blacks, for example, but he regarded that 
dislike as a sin, and acting on it as an even 
greater sin. Tom remembers his grand- 
mother simply as "the nicest human being 
I've ever known." The old couple raised the 
boy with an easy hand and he adored them 
in return, although he envied his friends for 
having both a mother and a father. It was his 
grandpa who first impressed upon him the 
importance of learning. "Get your educa- 
tion. Thomas," the old man told him, "it's 
the one thing they can't take away from 

"At the lime I didn\ know who 1hcy' 
were," Philpott says, "but of course 'they' 
were the British, Grandpa thought just like 
an Irishman," 


both real and fictional: Chief Joseph , R. P. McMurphy. Cool Hand Luke, Bobby Kennedy, 

lash- forward; It's a wintry after- 
noon in early 1982. Philpott is 
giving a lecture on Ireland as part 
of the UT student union's Interna- 
tional Cultures Week. "I was born in 
| the U.S., but I'm an Irishman," he tells the 
25 or so listeners drawn up in a circle on 
(Continued on page 212) 





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The Case of the 
Campus Crusader 

(Continued from page 165) 
sofas and chairs. The Irish have a history 
terrible among the peoples of the world." he 
says solemnly. "Irish symbols reek of loss. 
And yet the Irish carry a great burden of 
guilt, because in fighting British desecra- 
tions they have committed atrocities of their 
own. Only an Irishman could have said, "It 
is not those who can inflict the most but 
those that can suffer the most who will 

"The Irish boast of little in their culture, 
but they do have one telling conceit: their 
capacity for love. Irish blood gives the 
warmth that keeps the human race from 
freezing over. Only an Irishman could also 
have said: "The strength of a man is in his 
sympathies/ That statement is as alien as is 
conceivable to American culture. Americans 
think the Irish and Irish Americans are bar- 
baric -not because of their violence but 
because of their feeling." 

I ike the South Side, Tom's Catholic 
elementary school brought together 
rich and poor. {"I was in grammar 
J school," he recalls, "when it 
_m suddenly hit me that some kids 
lived in houses.'') Also like his neighbor- 
hood, his classes were lily-white. The only 
time he entered the city's Black Belt was 
when he traversed it on the way to Comiskey 
Park to see the White Sox play. 

But when he reached high school age, 
Tom began to commute to the same parish 
school his father had attended. It lay five 
miles from home on the opposite side of the 
Black Belt, ko now he rode a bus through the 
ghetto twice each day. It was the late fifties 
and the nation was just beginning to feel the 
reverberations of Brown v. Board of Educa- 
tion and the first civil rights demonstrations. 
In 1955 a black Chicago youth named Em- 
mett Till went to visit relatives in Missis- 
sippi. He was found drowned in chains after 
he supposedly whistled at a white woman. 
Ai about the same time, Tom Philpoct 
bought and read a book called Stride Toward 
Freedom, by Martin Luther King, Jr. - 
though at first he worried that the author, 
being named after Martin Luther, might be 
an evil man. 

Tom had seen blacks ejected from his 
church and from Rainbow Beach on Lake 
Michigan, where he swam, and it disturbed 
him. When a parish priest exhorted students 
at a football pep rally to "kill the monkeys" 
from the black school across town, Phil pott 
threw a penny at his feet and was made to 
stay after school every day through the end 
of the year. Undeterred, he joined sympathy 
demonstrations against national merchants 
whose lunch counters Southern blacks were 
struggling to integrate and took part in a 
wade-in to integrate the beach. ("God- 
dammit, Thomas," his grandfather later 
complained after a trip to the beach, "it's a 
fright. It's like going to Africa.'*) 
While Tom was in high school his mother 

remarried and moved to Evanston, But he 
stayed behind with his grandparents in order 
not lo lose his friends, his job at the local 
newsstand, and most of all, his new girl- 
friend. Her name was Anne, and she was 
beautiful, Irish, Catholic, and confined to a 
wheelchair. Neither of them seriously dated 
anyone else. "There was a certain charm to 
believing in the sanctity of marriage and 
virginity," Philpon says. "I went all the way 
through college on sublimated sex drive." 

Spring semester. 1982: Students file 
into UFs Burdine Auditorium for 
History 3I5L, "America Since 
1865," special section for foreign 
students. Standing alone on the 
broad stage of the 540-seai hall, flanked by 
two enormous movie screens, Philpon looks 
smaller than ever, peculiarly vulnerable. 
The term has just begun and he's giving the 
class, composed of 120 or so foreign 
students and roughly the same number of 
Americans, an overview lecture listed on the 
syllabus under the heading "The Promised 
Land -The American Creed." 

But first things first. "I'm not big on 
dates," Phil pott assures the class, "I'm not 
going to make you memorize a lot of 
numbers. But there is one date I think you 
should know." Two hundred forty notebooks 
rustle expectantly. "January 21, 1942." Two 
hundred forty pens go into action. "Exactly 
forty years ago today is when I date the 
beginning of modern history. . . . Thai's the 
dav I was born." Pens stop irt mid-sentence; 
the class laughs. 

Then the lights dim. A photo of the Statue 
of Liberty appears on the right-hand screen. 
"The fundamental question of American 
history." Philpon begins, "is whether or not 
this nation has lived up to its rhetorical 
creed, to the concept it was founded on: that 
America's unique abundance would create a 
society of unlimited opportunity, a society 
with no barriers to class mobility and no 
poverty." (If any of the students doubt the 
accuracy or that highly debatable formula- 
tion, they keep quiet.) 

The Statue of Liberty vanishes, a Pluck 
and Luck comic book giving the success 
story of a fictional office boy takes her 
place. On the opposite screen a gaggle of 
grimy child miners stare hollowly into the 
camera. More slides: on the right a 
nineteenth-century illustration of the ladder 
of success; on the left a nineteenth -century 
photo of children working in a textile mill. 
"In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt said the aim of 
government should be to take care of the 
forgotten man at the bottom of the economic 
pyramid. In this class we're going to take a 
look at those forgotten men." 

Still more slides: William Vander hilt's 
block- long New York mansion; a design for 
"model" tenements so cramped that almost 
eight hundred families could be squeezed 
into a single block, "Poverty. Disease. Vice. 
Violence," Philpon spits the words out like 
insults. "Crime. Disorder. Wretchedness. 
These things weren't supposed to happen in 
America." A measured silence. "I'm an 


American, I still believe in the dream. 1 just 
dont think it's been applied very successful- 
ly. I urge you 10 take the risk of being 
critical. I won 1 ! teach any other way. I'd 
rather go back to driving a bus or sell ling 
newspapers as 1 did when I was a young 
street kid rising to fame and for- 
tune . . , such as I enjoy here before you 

I om Philpott arrived at Chicago's 
'Loyola University in 1959 plan- 
ning: IO study English literature and 
le ft it four years later with a degree 
in history and a commitment to 
teaching, In the interim he continued to, as 
he says, "do a little moving and shaking" in 
the realm of protest politics. He led a drive 

to protect the job of a professor who had 
angered the school's Catholic hierarchy by 
documenting the German church's ac- 
quiescence to the Nazis; he helped organize 
a boycott of a segregated swimming pool 
near the campus. The boycott fizzled, Phil- 
pott recalls wryly, when one of his friends in 
the Loyola administration pointed out 
"where the greater good lay"- that is. thai 
the owners of the building that housed ihe 
segregated pool were important benefactors 
of the university. 

The budding radical also joined the 
ROTC, however. He planned to marry 
Anne, and he thought that a man with a 
handicapped wife had belter go into the 
Army as an officer if he was obliged to go 
at all. Their wedding took place in 1963, as 

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soon as both had graduated. They moved 
into one of Chicago's few integrated apart- 
ment buildings, where they were neighbors 
to the radical comedian Dick Gregory . Tom 
enrolled in a doctoral program at the Univer- 
sity of Chicago, supplementing his fellow- 
ship by driving buses and working at the 
newsstand and the university gym, Mean- 
while. Anne cared for the two sons and one 
daughter she bore within ihe marriage's first 
four years, 

Philpott thrived on the political ferment of 
the sixties. By mid-decade the focus of the 
civil rights movement had shifted north- 
ward, and Dr. King had chosen Chicago as 
the crucible of the fair housing right. When 
King arrived! in 1966 to stage fair housing 
marches, Philpott marched. When blacks 
and whites organized a rent strike in an 
apartment complex. Philpott traipsed up and 
down stairs and hallways distributing lit- 
erature, proud to demonstrate thai a grad- 
uate student could be content to do the leg- 
work and leave the planning to the common 
people. He also worked with Saul Alinsky in 
(he Woodlawn Organization lo draft a model 
cities program to counter one written by 
Mayor Richard Daley's staff. (Daley's plan 
wound up being challenged in court, so Hiz- 
zoncr got President Lyndon Johnson to have 
the guidelines governing such programs 

Philpott's mentor at the University of 
Chicago, Richard Wade, indoctrinated him 
into Democratic party politics — so deeply 
that in 1963 he helped organize the Indiana 
towns of Gary and Whiting for Robert Ken- 
nedy's presidential campaign. The day after 
Kennedy died, Philpott went to meet Wade 
at the candidate's Chicago headquarters. 
"Richard was the merriest person I've ever 
known,™ Philpott says, "but when I got there 
he was crying. He took my hand and patted 
it and then he kissed it. I said. This is it, I 
quit.' Then he grinned. 'You cant, Tom,' he 
said. "No one is allowed to quit until he turns 
thirty." " Philpott falls silent, then he says 
softly, "1 had written Bobby in 1967, saying, 
YouVc got to run, no matter what it does to 
you.' " 

/* /* A merica Since 1865" revisited: 
l§V)^ Philpott begins class by pointing 
,out an article in the Daily Texan 
about ihe Reagan administra- 
tion's decision to send emer- 
gency military aid to El Salvador despite 
congressional concern over the Salvadoran 
junta's civil rights record, "If you're going to 
defend that," he snaps at the class, "I. as a 
professor and as a citizen of this country and 
the world, challenge you to at least know- 
how it is being do™-- , , , Hmmm I dont 
have the slightest idea what's going on 
behind those masks (hat are your faces." 

With a shrug, he picks up the historical 
thread of the previous lecture. "The Puritans 
were very radical in some ways," he says. 
"They believed that each individual bore re- 
sponsibility for the whole community. If 
society was corrupt, and filthy, and vicious, 
the individual had a responsibility to set him- 



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self in opposition to it." 

It's time for the slides- Lincoln on ihc 
left. Manin Luther King on the right. Under 
their stem gaze Philpott draws a large circle 
on the chalkboard. The circle, he says, is the 
limit of popular opinion within which every 
politician must stay. Outside Lies the ter- 
ritory of another sort of leader, who seeks to 
expand the limits of that public tolerance. 
"Those men arc called reformers after 
they're dead," he says. "While they're alive 
they're called agitators, subversives, ter- 
rorists. Reformers can afford to be bold - up 
to a point. Both of these men" -he gestures 
at Che screens— "were assassinated-* 

Shifting gears, he reviews the presidential 
careers of Franklin Roosevelt, John Ken- 
nedy, and Lyndon Johnson, complete with 
slides, winding up with a photo of a tearful 
Bobby Kennedy standing beside his brother's 
coffin. ''Robert Kennedy was; the most loved 
and hated man in America." Philpott tells the 
class. "He voiced the unspoken needs of 
those who had no advocates- blacks, other 
minorities, the poor. And he was winning, 
he was pushing out the limits of American 
opinion. The most intense political activity 
in American history was trying to get him 
elected president. But in 1968 he was shot 
down. He was cut out of America's life, and 
since (hen no one has even tried to fill his 
place." (Any number of politicians might 
quibble with that one. but they're not present 
to object.) 

"War. Inequality. Poverty. Injustice. 
Those arc hot subjects. They're avoided by 
the politicians, the press, the preachers, 
because they're dangerous. Do professors 
raise them?" The class laughs nervously , "Is 
it prudent for a professor lo go into a 
classroom and talk about inequality and in- 
justice? It is not prudent. " 

I"n 1969, having finished all of his 
course work but not his dissertation, 
Philpott accepted UT*s offer of an in- 
structorship. Anne, at least, was not 
. impressed with their adopted state. 
"The drive was awful." she remembers. "It 
was August, we had no air conditioning, and 
everything from Oklahoma on looked com- 
pletely barren. I hated Austin for about a 
year." They could find no racially mixed 
neighborhood like the one they had left, so 
they chose the next-best thing: an all-white 
area of modest houses in Northeast Austin 
that looked like a good bet lo become mixed 
as East Austin's black population grew. 

With his family settled if not content. 
Philpott embarked on his nerve-racking first 
semester by throwing up in the men's room 
before each class, In 1970 he began team- 
teaching a course called "The American Ex- 
perience." It quickly became one of the most 
lalked-about and sought-after classes on 
campus, particularly among freshmen and 
sophomores hungry to fulfill subject re- 
quirements, for whom its three hours of 
history, three hours of government, and 
three hours Off English credits were an un- 
equalcd bonanza. At its peak, the course 
drew more than 800 students per semester; 

21 fl TEXAS MONTHLY /MAY 1982 


by the time Philpott quit teaching it in 1981. 
■over 12,000 young minds had been exposed 
to his multimedia vision of American 
history. The Philpott legend took hold and 
flourished, one of its cornerstones being that 
he always cried in class at least once a 
semester. (Philpott admits that he may occa- 
sionally get misty-eyed over the plight of the 
poor and oppressed, but it exasperates him 
that every reporter seizes on this one detail 
as the most salient fact of his career.) 

Wading through the voluminous sheaves 
of evaluations filled out by students who 
took "The American Experience.' The 
American City," or "America Since 1&65." 
one discerns a running thread of disaffec- 
tion: "biased,"' "poorly organized,." "repeti- 
tive," "too subjective," "too emotional," 
"likely to cause a riot someday," and even 
the grudging "You may be a bleeding heart, 
but you play the part well." But most of ihc 
comments read like cover blurbs from a 
smash best seller: "a great course." "the 
highlight of my college career." "one of the 
most meaningful things I've ever done," "un- 
forgettable," 1 "a good teacher and a good 
man," "a beautiful man." "Philpott, people 
like you are all the hope this country has 

With his career at UT established. Philpott 
dabbled assiduously in local politics. He 
testified before the city council on school de- 
segregation; he worked on the Austin 
Tomorrow Goals Assembly, which wrote 
the city's master plan. He helped found a 
group called the Northeast Austin Demo- 
crats and thrice was a delegate to the state 
Democratic convention, Anne and Tom 
organized a precinct for George McGovetn 
in 1972 and campaigned for liberal state rep- 
resentative Gonzalo Barricnlos in 1972 and 
1974 . A 1974 letter to the Daily Texan from 
Philpott and Texas Observer publisher Ron- 
nie Dugger is a classically Philpott tan piece 
of political rhetoric: "Gonzalo is un hombre 
de sentimientos. a man of feelings. He 
deserves to win . . ." 

Philpott also kept busy in his own neigh- 
borhood, which, as he had foreseen, over 
the years became first racially mixed and 
then almost exclusively blaek. When the 
Philpotts welcomed rather than resisted the 
change, white neighbors stoned and egged 
their house and car and harassed their three 
children. Even after the racial balance 
shifted, the tension took years to abate; it 
came to a head when a bicycle stolen from 
one of the Philpott children turned up at the 
home of a black family; Philpott got his jaw 
broken and was threatened with a gun when 
he went to retrieve the bike, 

One Upshot of all this activity was that 
Philpott never quite got around to com- 
pleting the dissertation that stood between 
him and his doctorate. In 1972 UT gave him 
notice that he would have to leave in a year. 
With that incentive he finished the project, 
(It was published in 1978 by the Oxford Uni- 
versity Press as The Slum and the Ghetto: 
Neighborhood Deterioration and Middle- 
Class Reform, Chicago I8S0-I930, and it 
drew favorable notices from such eminences 




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as Harvard education professor Nathan 
Glazer, who called it "a fine and sobering 
book.") UT rescinded its edict and in 1974 
welcomed Philpoti to the fold for good by 
granting him tenure and promoting him to 
associate professor. 

It was a move the administration soon 
had reason to rue. Phi I pott's running 
confrontation with the university began 
in 1975 when acting president Lorene 
. Rogers invited Kennedy-Johnson 
brain truster McGeorge Bundy. one ar- 
chitect of the Viet Nam War, to speak at 
UT's graduation ceremonies, A few students 
heckled Bundy; they were ejected from the 
proceedings by campus police; Philpott and 
one other professor walked out in protest. 
That summer when Rogers formulated the 
next year's salaries, Philpott found that he 
had gotten a $900 raise rather than the $2000 
his department had recommended. After 
several weeks of accusations and eounterac- 
cusalions, Philpott and six other politically 
active professors whose recommended 
raises had been cut— including the man who 
had left commencement with Philpott— filed 
suit against the university for "pursuing a 
course of conduct designed ... to curtail 
free expression at the University of Texas at 

The suit took four and a half years to come 
to trial, but in March 1980 federal district 
judge Jack Roberts ruled against all the pro- 
fessors. (Three appealed; the Fifth Circuit 
Court overturned Roberts's ruling in favor of 

one.) In Philpott s case, Rogers said she 
hadn't even known that any teachers walked 
out of commencement. She said she had 
overruled the departments salary recom- 
mendation because Philpott s career was 
shaky, he had been granted tenure only one 
year after receiving his Ph.D., and he had 
not at that time published a book. Bui in a 
handwritten memo to his American Civil 
Liberties Union lawyer, Philpott outlined a 
darker scenario: 

Commencement is the single big- 
gest annual promo-propaganda-porno 
show for the parents & alumni -the 
Deans all arc running around that 
week , . . hoping that everything 
goes off with the proper pomposity. 
And wc . . . walked out on bundy 
(for Christ's sake -and Lorene picked 
him herself, without asking anybody. 
& later. Cod help us, she said she 


strangelove. altho she did say she 
had heard there had been this distur- 
bance in Viet Nam} . . . The 2 of us 
spoiled it all for her & it was so god- 
dam sweet . . . shee-IT. 
Of course, by the time that was written, 
Rogers herself had become the hottest 
political issue on campus. Right on the heels 
of the salary controversy, the UT regents 
named Rogers president, even though a 
student -faculty advisory committee had re- 
peatedly refused to endorse her. On Friday, 
September 12, 1975, the largest crowd of 
students to gather since the glory days of the 

antiwar movement listened to speakers de- 
nounce the appointment. The first and, 
according to the Daily Texan, most warmly 
received orator was Tom Philpott, "It is our 
responsibility to teach the deans and chair- 
men by our example," he told the crowd. A 
leiter to regent Tom Law written the next 
Monday is vintage Philpott, full of emotion 
and high rhetoric: 
Dear Tom 

Everything is chaotic, and I haven't 
had any sleep in two days. This is 
Monday morning; I'm to debate 
[regent and former governor] Allan 
Shivers tonight . . . It's important for 
you to understand how negative the 
atmosphere has been on this campus 
for years, how beaten, how defeated 
the faculty has felt, how cynical most 
people were about . . . the judgement 
and the honor of the Regents, . . . 
What wc need here is a strong student 
body, a strong faculty, strong Chair- 
men and Deans, a strong President, 
and a strong Board of Regents. And I 
mean morally strong ... I am angry 
about this: I expressed these views for 
years, and I was ridiculed and not 
taken seriously and thought some- 
thing of a chump, somebody who 
would grow up eventually and learn 
how it is. I never could accept that 
and now that I have done something lo 
help turn it around I never warn to see 
it go back , . . 
That night, Philpott alienated even some 

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of his. own followers by clowning his way 
through the debate with Shivers. The Texan 
reported that at one point Philpott cried and 
that at another Shivers stopped to rebuke 
him for making faces. Perhaps exhaustion 
was taking its toll; perhaps Philpott \ manic- 
depressive illness -characterized by wild 
swings between elation and despair— was 
emerging. In any case, Lorcnc Rogers 
stayed on as UT president. The protest and 
the loosely organized boycott that accom- 
panied it were doomed just as surely as Phil- 
pott s suit against the university. 

Even so, the battle had its comic elements: 
lucked away in Philpott 's files is a charm- 
ingly childlike student drawing. "ELECT 
phiijpott for responsible, honest <& sensitive 
University Gov't," it says above a smiling 
likeness of the candidate. "Political an- 
nouncement paid for by the UT committee 
searching for a real presidem." And at the 
bottom: "Hang in there, blue eyes." 

Hang in he did, if just barely. His mar- 
riage to Anne was beginning to unravel. 
While he took on the University of Texas, 
she delved more deeply into political work. 
'The marriage was very rough on her," Tom 
concedes. There she was, living with an un- 
diagnosed manic-depressive who was going 
through one hell of a beating after another on 
campus. And something happened to me— I 
wasn't sure that I loved her anymore the way 
I had." They separated from Thanksgiving 
of 1975 through the following June. 

Governor Dolph Briscoe presented Philpott 
with a new windmill to till at early in 1977, 

when he appointed three of his political 
cronies to the UT Board of Regents. Philpott 
led a drive to block their confirmation by the 
state Senate, circulating a petition to faculty 
and students, lobbying at the Capitol, pro- 
viding background on the appointees' 
political peccadilloes to liberal senators, 
submitting editorials and open letters to the 
Daily Texan. But the Senate confirmed the 
appointments before Philpott could gather a 
quorum - 15 per cent of the faculty —to meet 
and vote on a resolution against them. 

Meanwhile, Philpott was falling apart. He 
collapsed several times- in a photocopy 
shop, at a McDonald's, at the theater. Final- 
ly he checked into a private hospital, where 
doctors diagnosed him as manic-depressive 
and prescribed tranquilizers and lithium. But 
even as his medical condition improved, his 
marriage broke up for good, Philpott found 
himself living one of the cliches of aca- 
demia; he fell in love with a student. Her 
name was Louise Epstein, and she was the 
twenty-year-old daughter of a UT anthro- 
pology professor. She was also separated 
from her first husband, whom she had mar- 
ried at eighteen. Anne insisted Tom choose 
either her and the children or Louise. Instead 
he chose a potentially fatal dose of lithium, 
but his son Paul and Louise got him to a 
hospital in time to save him. In October 
1978 Tom moved in with Louise. He and 
Anne were divorced the following May; he 
wed Louise that October. It was, Louise 
says half bitterly, "the scandal of the 

"Anne was beautiful and she was in a 
wheelchair," Tom says. "I think people had 
romanticized us as this fairy-talc couple. 
After the divorce most of our friends never 
invited me into their homes again." 

I"n 1979 the professor whom many stu- 
dents had credited with changing their 
lives had his life changed by a student. 
John Kells was only nineteen, but al- 
- ready he was an accomplished tele- 
vision reporter. Kells and another reporter, 
David Glodt, had just made Boys for Sale, a 
one-hour documentary about runaways who 
lived on Houston's streets and survived by 
selling themselves to pederasts. When Phil- 
pott learned of the film he asked to see it. "I 
was devastated,"' he says, The suffering of 
these children goes beyond poverty, beyond 
anything I've ever known," 

Philpott began spending weekends in 
Houston, observing and interviewing boy 
husders. He shelved two years' worth of 
research on the Molly Maguires, a radical 
Irish American coal miners' organization, 
and began gathering material for a book 
about street children. Kells got a job as a 
newsman in Houston; he and some of his 
colleagues drove the streets of Montrose in 
their off hours, trying to help boys find 
shelter, jobs, ways to gel out of "the life." 
Late in 1979, when the Daily Texan ran ar- 
ticles about two incidents in which men had 
been charged with sexually abasing boys, 
Kells and Philpott contacted Gary Fendler, 
an editor at the Texan, and Mark McKinnon, 

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a reporter. 

"It was all very clandestine, very secre- 
tive," McKinnon remembers. "At that point 
nobody was supposed to know about Kells's 
film, but they arranged a private screening 
for us. Then they started telling us about 
how people investigating child prostitution 
had been kncccappcd and had acid thrown in 
their faces. It got pretty crazy. Philpott said 
his kids had been followed." Later. Philpott 
told other friends other ominous tales: that 
the prominent and wealthy men who profited 
from organized boy prostitution had spied on 
him and sent emissaries to provoke him into 
violent confrontations; that his phone had 
been bugged and his apartment repeatedly 
broken into; that one day as he was riding 
down the freeway a passenger in another car 
pointed a rifle at him; that his colleagues in 
the investigation had been shot at and had 
hired bodyguards to protect themselves. 

In the winter of 1980 Philpott's elder son, 
Paul, moved in with Tom and Louise. Hav- 
ing him in the apartment compounded the 
stress of their already hectic lives. Louise, 
outwardly the calmest and most matter-of- 
fact of women, was struggling through 
graduate school; Tom was deeply immersed 
in his research on boy hustlers; both of them 
had to cope with the belief that his life was 
in danger. Louise was fond of Paul, but the 
three of them were living in very close 
quarters and the situation wasn't working. 
Tom curtailed his work in Houston and an- 
nounced that he would no longer teach the 
mammoth "American Experience" course. It 
wasn't enough. In June 1981 Louise moved 
out and filed for divorce. 

"It was good for us to split up." she says 
now. "I had gotten BO caught up in the terror 
that it had made me combative. I think the 
only reason I was able to survive the divorce 
was that I'd prepared myself for Tom's 
death." Suddenly, unexpectedly, her eyes 
fill with tears. Suddenly she doesn't seem 
nearly the rock one friend aptly described 
her as, "Some nights, I used to lie in bed 
shaking. But once you really face the pos- 
sibility of death you just begin living day by 
day. I'm not afraid anymore," 

On the evening of October 27 
1 Louise quarreled with her new 
I boyfriend. As he drove away. 
"she went to the phone to call a 
woman friend. Instead, she found 
herself dialing Toms number. He told her he 
had been ambushed and shot. She went to his 
apartment and persuaded him to let her take 
him to the hospital. The rest is history. 
Before the year was out they were fully 
reconciled. Around Christmas Paul went to 
live with his mother again. Louise and Tom 
remarried on March 17, 1982 -Saint Pat- 
ricks Day, 

Today Philpott concedes that his memory 
of the attack is hazy. He says he was stand- 
ing at the kitchen sink when he heard a noise 
in the bedroom. He thinks there were two 
men, he thinks they were white, he thinks 
that during the struggle for the gun they tried 
to put it to his head and make him shoot 

himself. (He speculates that they chose that 
course because he had made suicide plausi- 
ble by having attempted it.) He says he had 
made the second bullet hole in the far 
bedroom wall several months earlier, testing 
to make sure that in a shootout a stray bullet 
would not penetrate his son's room. Believ- 
ing that his enemies had previously entered 
his apartment at will, he docs not think it odd 
that the police found no signs of forced entry 
after the shooting. And his conviction that 
the ringleaders of organized child prostitu- 
tion ordered the attack was bolstered in 
March when a professor from Northern Il- 
linois University was shot to death while do- 
ing research on boy hustlers. 

For their part, the detectives on the case 
say they arc bothered by several incon- 
gruous pieces of evidence. Philpott says just 
one shot was fired, but they found two shell 
casings. And both of the bullet holes looked 
fresh to them. They were not notified of the 
shooting until Louise signaled to a patrol car 
on the way to the hospital. They found no 
fingerprints or other physical evidence to 
give substance to Philpott's story of in- 
truders. But most of all. they're miffed that 
he wont take a lie detector test. Until he 
does, they II continue to suspect that he shot 
himself for publicity or sympathy, or that he 
was wounded in a domestic quarrel. 

As matters now stand, there's little likeli- 
hood that the case will be solved. The only 
thing that is clear is that the victim and the 
police dont much trust or care for each 
other. But how much of their mutual suspi- 

cion may have existed before the shooting is 

anybody's guess. We are dealing here, after 
all, with a self-appointed crime fighter who 
says a hideous problem has gone undetected 
or been willfully ignored by the police — not 
the type of guy your average cop on the beat 
is likely to be fond of, 

Philpott's critics have treated his story of 
would-be assassins with unconcealed dis- 
dain. Even his friends regard it with pal- 
pable anguish and confusion, and he knows 
it. "Before October I didn't have all kinds of 
people looking at me sideways and whisper- 
ing." he says bitterly. But if the truth be 
known, his admirers-and he still has 
many— had wrestled with ambivalence even 
before the shooting, fearing that Philpott is 
a compulsive publicity seeker, a determined 
martyr racked by Irish Catholic guilt and 
still struggling, as one dryly put it, "to get 
over the Potato Famine." And Philpott 
doesn't make it easy for them to bury those 
doubts. On the day after the shooting a 
longtime friend decided to attend Philpott's 
lecture class; he walked in to find a photo of 
Philpott himself projected on the screen. 

"My roommate and I used to sit in his class 
and doodle bleeding hearts in each other's 
notebooks," recalls one former student, 
"And yet . , ." And yet. The one thing 
almost no one denies is Philpott's ability to 
teach. Yes, he is emotional, he is a dema- 
gogue, he is easy to manipulate, concede 
many students. And yet, they add, he held 
my attention and he got me to think. 

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sophomores." says Mark McKinnon simply. 
Then he broods for a minute. "Tom was so 
popular and in the center of things. And now 
he's on the fringes, like the catcher in [he 

And not only because of the shooting. The 
early eighties have provided Philpott with a 
full complement of less-than-popular causes. 
In 1980 it was the arrest and prosecution of 
two dozen Iranian students who had inter- 
rupted an on-campus speech by a former 
Iranian ambassador. Nineteen eighty -one 
brought El Salvador, edgy confrontations 
between American and Palestinian students, 
and the suspension of a radical grad stu- 
dent's leaching duties- Nineteen eighty two 
dawned with socialist government teacher 
AJ Watkins being denied tenure. Philpott 
presented the Faculty Senate and the Univer- 
sity Council with eight separate resolutions 
in behalf of the Iranian dissidents alone. 
Two very general calls for administrative 
restraint eventually passed after protracted 
debates, which Philpott dominated, f Think 
of that tradition called OU weekend." he 
chided slyly at one point, "when the ad- 
ministrations of this university, the Univer- 
sity of Oklahoma, and the city of Dallas 
combine to permit what would otherwise be 
defined as a mob to do what another night 
would be called riot. This is dealt with with 
discretion, mildness,") Philpott also testified 
at the Iranians' trial; twelve were convicted 
and all appealed. 

Like any compulsively outspoken figure. 
Philpott had always been jeered at in some 
quarters. But championing Iranians (in the 
midst of the hostage crisis, no less) and later 
Palestinians was another matter altogether. 
It made him, as he himself puts it, odious. 

jhilpott from Five angles, scene 
one: "Not Another Viet Nam," 
'pleads one sign. "Murder Will 
Out -So Should U.S. of El Salvador," 
warns another. Organizers at a table 
hand out other signs to the ragged group of 
perhaps 150 protesters gathered on UT's 
West Mall. At the fringes of the rally a 
young man wearing a "U.S. Out of El Salva- 
dor" T-shirt reads the Daily Texan, ignoring 
the speakers and musicians who troop to the 
microphone -a Vict Nam veteran, an Arlo 
Guthrie-style folkie. a Latin combo, two 
members of the A fro- American Players. 
Philpott stands unnoticed near the center of 
the crowd, not sure whether hell be called 
on to speak- The rally's organizers had ap- 
proached him, but they admitted when he 
asked that yes, it had occurred to them that 
he might be a liability rather than an asset, 
what with having been so visible for so long 
and ail. 

At ten to one the tower carillon goes wild, 
drowning out the Afro-American Players' 
chant. At one o'clock precisely, the driver of 
the university sound truck pulls the plug on 
the protesters' microphone, and Philpott ad- 
journs to the Cactus Cafe to kill time until a 
three o'clock march on the Capitol. Midway 
through his second gin and tonic he's ac- 
costed by a young couple at the next table. 

They want him to explain the Viet Nam 
War. Why did we lose? they demand eager- 
ly . Why are so many of the vets screwed up? 
What was the Tel offensive? As the hour 
edges toward three he gently but not regret- 
fully disengages himself from them, "That 
same guy latched onto me yesterday," he 
confides with a slight shudder, "It happens 
all the lime, but it's a little scary when 
they're so intense." 

The marchers form two lines— perhaps fif- 
ty Middle Eastern students and a dozen 
Americans. Philpott attaches himself to the 
end of the procession, awkwardly holding at 
his side the sign he has been handed. "One, 
two. three, four/' chant the students, starting 
down the Drag. "U,S, out of Salvador!" The 
scene at the Capitol is more or less a replay 
of the one on the mall, only with fewer peo- 
ple around to ignore it. 

Dusk is falling and Austin's white-collar 
work force is streaming out of downtown as 
the marchers walk down Congress Avenue 
to the river for a candlelight vigil. They 
hunker down on a grassy slope and Philpott 
addresses them through a bullhorn, strug- 
gling to make himself heard over the steady 
roar of traffic. 'This, is a day." he says, "for 
commemorating the deaths of thirty thou- 
sand brave people. People like us- we are a 
revolutionary people, too. It is a crime that 
[his tyranny continues. It is a crime that this 
suffering continues. It is a crime that we of 
ail people not only tolerate but support it. 
This war will poison us who stand by and 
watch it" When he finishes the protesters 
move to the bridge, where they huddle in 
little knots, trying cheerfully but vainly to 
shelter their glittering candles from the 

Scene two: History 350L, "Children 
and the City Streets." It's the first 
day of class, and about thirty peo- 
ple are crowded into a seminar 
room meant for fifteen. "Three 
hundred people tried to sign up for this 
class," Philpott tells them. He asks some 
students to give up their places in the class 
to bring it down to manageable size. "Four 
hundred people tried to sign up for this 
class," he reminds them. {Oh, well, what "s a 
little exaggeration among friends?) At last 
four or five leave, Philpott asks each re- 
maining student to give a brief auto- 
biography and tell why he's interested in the 
course. "I'm in love with you," offers one 
middle-aged woman. 

"1 really don't know how to leach this 
course.,"' Philpott confesses to them, "The 
literature on hustling is very weak, I think 
partly because blindness to the problem is 
conditioned in this society. If you go over to 
the Graduate School of Business you'll get 
the impression that American society is 
perfect -and getting better. They have no 
conception of what happens as darkness 
begins to fall in any American city." He 
stares moodily into the dusk outside the 
classroom window, perhaps contemplating 
the pain, and the isolation, chat awareness 
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munily," he says al length, "one of the most 
intimidating things is the fear of being 
thought naive or prudish. All anyone wants 
to know is "What's wrong with these 
reformers, anyway?' If you're well i men- 
tioned, if you try, you get nailed to the 
cross. " 

Scene three: office hours. Like his 
apartment, Philpott's tiny office in 
the history department's not-so- 
gracefully aging Garrison Hall is a 
marvelous hodgepodge: a Chicago 
White Sot pennant; Barricntos and fair 
housing campaign stickers; three photos of 
Martin Luther King; six photos of Bobby 
Kennedy, one taken immediately after he 
was gunned down; pictures of immigrant- 
laden ships; portrails of the Kcni State Four; 
two of the seven leaching awards he has won 
over the years; movie posters for Cool Hand 
Luke, Bound for Glory, Serpico: a sublimely 
shabby brown armchair; yellowing slacks of 
student exams; the armless statue of a black 
groom, "emancipated," Philpott says* from a 
fraternity house at Centenary College in 

Philpott holds office hours from one to 
five. Today, the first three and a half hours 
arc monopolized by students either com- 
plaining about last semesters grades or try- 
ing to talk their way into his already 
overflowing courses for the new term. "I'm 
just looking for a way to make this semester 
worthwhile," one dewy-eyed freshman 

"My friends told me he makes history just 
like a soap opera." she confides as Philpott 
turns his attention to a heavily made-up 
woman who has barged in to demand a grade 
change. "You need to raise my grade." the 
newcomer tells him impatiently. Tve got to 
have a two-poini-two-five average or I can't 
get into my marketing classes.™ 

Next, he spends half an hour with a male 
student, passionately discussing the merits 
of his "America Since I&65" essay final. 
(The question: was the Viet Nam War a just 
or unjust war?) "I don't care about the 
grade," the student insists. *I just wanted 
you to read the paper." Philpott changes his 
grade to an A anyway, even though the 
teaching assistant had awarded only a 78 on 
the final and an 84 on the midterm As 
Philpott is filling out the grade-change form, 
another man sticks his head in the door. 
Philpott greets him warmly and asks if he's 
still working for the Peace Corps in Wash- 
ington, They reminisce and. after a few 
minutes' calculation, established that the visi- 
tor took Philpotfs "American Experience" 
course in 1972. 

Al about four-thirty, Philpott is alone. A 
young man slips in and perches on the edge 
of a chair. After some hailing small talk, it 
emerges that the student is there because he's 
heard of Phtlpotts course on runaway 
children. "I was a male hustler in New 
York." he says softly. Philpott nods sym- 
pathetically and spends the rest of his day 
listening to the young man's labored, heart- 
rending confession. 

Scene four: the regents' boardroom. 
University of Texas System of- 
flees. It's half past noon, the rc- 
I gents have just adjourned. Laugh- 
ing and talking, the well-fed, well- 
dressed staff and administrators head off in 
search of lunch. No one takes much note of 
the small, confused band of students - and 
one professor- huddled in a corner, dwarfed 
by the cavernous room with its paneled and 
brocaded walls, gold chandeliers, and velvet 
draperies. Actually, the kids are lucky to be 
there at all: they had come hoping to calk to 
the regents about the fate of government 
teacher Al Watkins, but the security guards 
downstairs wouldn't let them near the 
meeting at all until they promised they 
wouldn't cause a disturbance. Now it's clear 
that the regents have slipped through their 
fingers, and they're at a bit of a loss. At last 
they corral the two or three reporters still 
present and hold an impromptu press con- 
ference, lounging in the regents' high- 
backed chairs with all the relish of five-year- 
olds trying on Mommy's and Daddy's 
clothes. Each representative makes a polite 
speech on behalf of his or her organization: 
they applaud one another sweetly as three 
bored UT cops munch on doughnuts. They 
ask Philpolt to speak, loo— he's here, after 
all. al their request. 

"I'm a colleague of Al Watkins'*.'" he says 
gravely. "Tve taught with him, I've seen him 
teach in the classroom, and I've watched him 
teach in the wider sense, outside the 
classroom. He has performed the greatest 
service I think any professor at this universi- 
ty ean perform; he has taken great risks in 
public. I'm heartened to sec UT students 
organizing to do something worthwhile. 
And this is worthwhile," he says, earnestly 
addressing his handful of listeners and the 
opulent, empty room. 

Scene five: home again. These days 
Tom Philpott doesnt much like to 
talk about his shooting. And he 
flatly refuses to discuss the stories 
about threats against him. "All that 
cops-and-robbers stuff is only a distraction." 
he insists. '"Death is nothing. I've never 
feared death— only dishonor. And besides," 
he says, "having gotten shot is probably the 
best insurance I could have." 

Which is fortunate. Because, he says, de- 
spite the whispers that he suffers from a 
martyr complex. "I want to live. More than 
anything I want to try lo live normally, to be 
a little bit merry." To shield himself from 
criticism, he reaches for the mantle of 
history. "One enduring theme of American 
life is the alien amidst the tribe. The tribe 
transgresses, and in order to recall it to 
itself, the reformer must become an out- 
sider; he's forced out by those he would 

"1 said I'd never leave this place until I 
made one real improvement." And has he? 
He laughs. "It's too hard to tell." He pauses, 
then grins. "Actually, I'd kind of like to be 
buried in the stone of the West Mall, like 
Jack Reed in the Kremlin. "%